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These were the 14 best art exhibitions of 2018

Eddy Frankel

Over the last year, we’ve reviewed almost 200 exhibitions, and seen plenty more. That’s a lot of art. Honestly, we’re all knackered. But before we lock ourselves away for the winter to stare madly into the flames of a fire in a futile attempt to burn the images of all the terrible paintings and sculptures we’ve seen out of our retinas and memories, here are our top shows of the year. 

Taryn Simon: ‘An Occupation of Loss’ for Artangel

Down in an abandoned underground car park in Angel, the American artist Taryn Simon created a whole universe of mourning. Hiring professional mourners from all over the world, she let you explore the cold, grey, cavernous space and stand face-to-face with international pain. It was beautiful, clever and the most moving exhibition of the year.  

‘Michael Jackson: On the Wall’ at the National Portrait Gallery

Lots of people were disappointed by this show: they were hoping for a hagiographic celebration of the king of pop, full of juicy biographical details and all that classic NPG stuff. Instead, what they got was something infinitely more interesting: a look at how MJ influenced art and pop culture. It had very little to do with him as a person, and everything to do with him as a cultural force.

‘Good Grief, Charlie Brown!’ at Somerset House

Charles M Schulz packed so much sadness, hubris, depression, anxiety and fragility into ‘Peanuts’ that you’d have to be a cold-hearted bastard to not feel moved to tears by loads of the rare panels on display in this show. That would be good enough, but it’s made even better by a whole host of contemporary artists reacting to Schulz’s work. He’s a shining example of humility and compassion in a world that desperately needs it.

‘Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece’ at the British Museum

The French sculptor is one of the very few artists truly deserving of the term ‘master’. Throughout this gorgeous show about his work’s relationship with the art of ancient Greece, you were struck by how incredibly forward-thinking and totally modern he was. That his wife’s role in his work is overlooked is a frustrating aspect of all of this, but the sculptures… the sculptures, man. Wow.

Mika Rottenberg at GCCA

Art is almost never actually funny, but Mika Rottenberg is an exception. Her show here at the brand new Goldsmiths CCA – a mixture of film and installation works – was full of ludicrous, absurd scenarios, visual puns and gags that poked and mocked economics and our transactional culture.

Martine Syms: ‘Grand Calme’ at Sadie Coles HQ

Syms turned her neuroses, her passions, her loves and her fears into an enormous ‘threat map’ for you to navigate in this gallery. By considering her innermost thoughts as part of some imagined computer system, she drew parallels between lives lived online and in reality, and in the process – yet again – showed why she deserves all the attention she gets.

Juno Calypso: ‘What to do with a Million Years’ at TJ Boulting

There is no bigger young photographer around right now, and this show – replete with faux grass and a bubbling fountain – recreated an underground Las Vegas bunker where she spent time exploring ideas of beauty, youth, regeneration and fear of oblivion. It was funny, sexy, scary, intelligent and very, very good.

Andreas Gursky at the Hayward Gallery

Big f’in pictures in the brilliantly refurbished Hayward Gallery. We waited a long time for the gallery to re-open, and to do it with this breathtaking show of giant photos was a bold, and very smart, move.

Andreas Gursky, 'Les Mées', copyright Andreas Gursky/DACS. Courtesy: Sprüth Magers

Ed Atkins: ‘Olde Food’ at Cabinet

Screens show medieval peasants weeping in the rain, while all around you are clothing rails filled with LARP-costumes. Part philosophical treatise, part attack on how easy our emotions are to manipulate, Ed Atkins’s show was massively complex, but hugely rewarding. Intelligent, challenging and with the singular power to make you want to dress like a medieval warlord every weekend.

Korakrit Arunanondchai at Carlos Ishikawa

Like a séance at a mystical laser rave, this immersive show of video art and light work dunked you into an ocean of ghosts, spirits and spirituality. Perfectly affecting, totally optimistic, and some of the most exciting young art around. 

Julie Becker: ‘I Must Create a Masterpiece to Pay the Rent’ at the ICA

The ICA hasn’t half put on some naff shows over the past few years, but this was – finally – something worth going down the Mall for. Paranoid, aggressive, absurd art by an artist who didn’t get the recognition she deserved during her lifetime. It’s everything the ICA should be doing: interesting and challenging, but totally worth your time.

‘Picasso 1932: Love, Fame, Tragedy’ at Tate Modern

Urgh, I can’t tell you how much I wanted to hate this. Did we really need another Picasso show, in a world full of Picasso shows? Can there really be any more to say? Annoyingly – really, really annoying – it turns out the answer was yes. Following his output through just one, admittedly pivotal, year in his life, the show took you on a journey through genuine artistic genius, through emotional upheaval, aesthetic experimentation – it was exhaustingly brilliant. Yeah, it would be nice to see some art by someone else every once in a while, but damn it he was good.

Anthea Hamilton: ‘The Squash’ at Tate Britain

The Duveen commission at Tate Britain this year was done by the brilliant Anthea Hamilton, who paved the whole space in white tiles, filled it with sculptures and set a bunch of performers loose in it, moving achingly slowly and dressed as... squashes. It’s art about looking and touching and feeling, and it was the most fun show of the year by far.

‘Charles I: King and Collector’ at Royal Academy

This show was an overwhelming, staggering, beautiful walk through history – hallways filled with power and aesthetics, all created by some of the greatest artists of Charles I’s era. Him and his family might have been a ridiculous-looking, bug-eyed bunch, but he sure had impeccable taste.

Loads of these are closed now, but click here to find the best shows to see right now.

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